The Surprising Rust-Belt Magnet for Educated Foreigners

Why you should care

Surprising Erie, Pennsylvania, gets more than its fair share of foreign workers.

Erie, Pennsylvania, may seem like an unlikely magnet for foreigners smart and ambitious enough to go beyond a basic baccalaureate. And yet the city of 100,000 with a lakeside setting equidistant from glamorous Cleveland and sparkly Buffalo is outdoing marquee immigrant hubs like Boston and Austin, Texas, in one economic metric.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services:

Erie, Pennsylvania, has the nation’s highest percentage of H-1B visa holders with advanced degrees.

The U.S. doles out 85,000 H-1B visas annually to specially skilled foreigners who temporarily plug holes in the American workforce; 20,000 of those slots are reserved for applicants with master’s degrees. Most of the recipients of the coveted work tickets, which have a maximum shelf life of six years, congregate in metro areas on the East Coast and in Texas, according to a recent Pew Research analysis.

But one subset apparently prefers the subtler charms of a sturdy outpost in the Rust Belt and the snow belt (100 inches annually on average). Companies in Erie employed 700 H-1B visa holders between 2010 and 2016, and 75 percent of them held advanced degrees — well above the national average of 49 percent. The infusion of brainiacs with passports means Erie’s workforce is “very highly skilled compared to other metropolitan areas,” says Neil G. Ruiz, associate director of global migration and demography at the Pew Research Center.


Erie’s experience is a reminder that not all H-1B visas go to newly minted cubicle dwellers in Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley and other places with cute semiconductor-inspired nicknames. For Erie, decidedly old-economy GE Transportation historically has been the big engine, employing thousands at its huge century-old locomotive manufacturing plant. And that kind of work called for plenty of designers and engineers, many of whom held advanced degrees, according to Deia Campanelli, GE Transportation’s chief communications officer. GE has shifted operations to Fort Worth, Texas, though, and will end production here by the end of the year, although Erie will remain a center for research and design, says Campanelli, which sounds like steady work for those with master’s degrees.

And as the city’s manufacturing base erodes, it has responded by trumpeting the need to continue the shift to a more tech-centric economy, which has a familiar ring. “Like many other cities that have a heavy industrial and manufacturing heritage, Erie has been facing considerable challenges in trying to make the transition,” says Ken Louie, associate professor of economics and director of the Economic Research Institute of Erie at Penn State Behrend.

Companies may have an easier time luring skilled foreign workers to the scenic shores of Lake Erie than recruiting qualified American applicants.

Erie has evolved before — from early Great Lakes port to mid-19th-century railroad town to bootlegger’s paradise during Prohibition to manufacturing hub. And there are indications that it’s turning another corner. According to a Brookings Institution report, as of 2015, science, technology and engineering industries accounted for nearly $2 billion of output in the region and almost 9 percent of all jobs.

As tech beefs up its presence in northwestern Pennsylvania, former manufacturing employees might lack the degrees and skills required for the jobs the new sector brings — opening those roles to foreign workers. In fact, just 6.7 percent of locals over the age of 25 have a graduate or professional degree, compared to 11.5 percent nationwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2016 American Community Survey. “As these companies make adaptions toward this higher-tech economy, they are increasingly looking for workers to fill positions that demand those kinds of skills,” Louie says. “The increase of H-1B visas … may be reflecting that trend.”

And companies may have an easier time luring skilled foreign workers to the scenic shores of Lake Erie than recruiting qualified American applicants. “Our economy is still struggling a little bit in terms of growth and real personal income levels,” Louie adds. “To attract workers from other parts of the country to an area that isn’t as economically dynamic — that’s perhaps one driver inducing companies to look for people from other countries.”

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